The Military in Fiction

Phil Carter‘s commenters are having great fun with his critique of Lifetime’s “Army Wives” for “easy caricatures and the easy plot formulas” which “fails to convey the depth and complexity underlying a number of important military issues.” They rightly note that very few movies and television shows about anything are accurate and complex because their interest is in entertaining viewers rather than informing them.

Phil counters that “sometimes fiction is the best vehicle for telling the larger truths about a subject,” listing “Three Kings” and “Catch-22” as examples. That’s also true, although those cases are rare, indeed, compared to the totally worthless portals of military life in fiction (cf “Sgt. Bilko,” “McHale’s Navy,” “I Dream of Genie,” etc.).

My guess is Phil has the same annoying affliction that I have: The inability to suspend disbelief when watching movies about things that we know something about. I can’t count the number of times every week when I make some point about why some plot twist doesn’t make sense to have my unsympathetic wife exclaim, “It’s a movie!” or “It’s a TV show!”

I’m perfectly willing to watch fantasy entertainment like science fiction adventure shows, superhero adventures, or James Bond flicks and accept the far-fetched premises. (Sun’s yellow rays make you fly? A radioactive spider, huh? Fine.) Even there, though, I get annoyed when those premises aren’t adhered to or the characters make inexplicable decisions simply to move the plot along. (Why is the captain taking the entire command staff down to explore that dangerous planet? Just shoot him already! Why can’t the female lead ever just stay in the damn car like she’s told?)

Likewise, I can watch war movies and accept that John Wayne is pretty near invincible or that fighter jocks are dangling their air masks because, otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to see their facial expressions. I never understand, though, why they can’t get the haircuts and uniforms right.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. just me says:

    I think part of the problem is that in many instances the screenwriters just don’t know any better.

    Also, my brother in law always laughs at the fact that in the movies the bad guys are always terrible shots, and the good guys almost never seem to miss.

    But then TV and movies rarely get things perfect in any type of show-cops and lawyers have just as many complaints about cop and lawyer shows as military people have about military stuff (my husband used to watch JAG to pick out the various “there is no way that would ever happen” type gaffs). Where many viewers watched JAG as a drama, my husband watched it for the comedic value.

    Of course one of my favorite “duh” moments is in the movie Top Gun when they are introducing the female leads character to the men at Top Gun, and the guy says “she is a civilian, so you don’t have to salute her.” As if guys who had already been through NROTC, initial flight school training, and time at sea wouldn’t be more than aware of who was and wasn’t a civilian and that they didn’t need to salute them. Very dumb moment.

  2. NoZe says:

    My father is a retired Air Force pilot…whenever we’re watching a movie involving the interior of a cockpit, he’s always ignoring the dialogue and plot and instead is always perusing the controls, indicators, dials, etc. Invariably, he’ll point out that the settings are all wrong and that the plane couldn’t possibly be airborne…

    I had the same experience a couple of weeks ago watching “The State Within,” a BBC production about politics and intrigue set in the British embassy in Washington. When the ambassador slept with a lowly vice-consul, I called shenanigans!

    I can’t say that its never happened, but, having worked in an embassy I know its highly unlikely and certainly not something an ethical and professional ambassador (as this one was portrayed to be) would do!

  3. Dramas like West Wing, ER, Medical Investigations, also don’t or didn’t portray reality very well. I remember an ER Where a young woman was dying of malignant melanoma(I’m a survivor of MM) and wanting to scream at the TV. What they got wrong wasn’t even necessary for the plot, it was just ignorance.

    Pregnancies or facts about them are rarely portrayed accurately. Mothers don’t miscarry after 20 weeks, its a stillbirth.

    I had a friend who worked at the NSC for a few years. His wife used to make fun of WW and how bad it was.

    Watch a tv show or movie to escape reality, not watch reality. If Survivor was really a reality show, wouldn’t some of the contestants die?


  4. Peter says:

    I practiced civil litigation for 10 years, after a 2 year clerkship with a trial court, and it’s generally ruined courtroom dramas for me. Off the top of my head only To Kill a Mockingbird and surprisingly, A Time to Kill, are watchable. If I watch just about anything else I can’t help muttering “Objection! OBJECTION!!” at first under my breath and eventually out loud to the annoyance of whoever’s within earshot.

  5. just me says:

    Pregnancies or facts about them are rarely portrayed accurately.

    This is especially true after having been there and done that.

    I realize that not every pregnancy or childbirth is going to be the same, but I can’t help but laugh when a perfectly clean baby anything but a newborn is born.

  6. superdestroyer says:

    I believe that one of the reason that people like the Sopranos is that it required less suspension of belief. The only thing most people know about organized crime is what they have seen in various movies. It wasn’t like many people know how the rackets work or how to organize a contract murder.

    And the problem is movies about Army wives, cops, or doctors, is that most of their lives are fairly boring.

  7. Tracy says:

    The reason the uniforms aren’t right, from what I hear, is that they’re not allowed to be.

    They can use mostly right uniforms in movies, but they cannot be completely correct. That would be impersonating a military member. I hear that the same applies for police uniforms. By making small mistakes, most people aren’t likely to notice or pay attention, and then it’s just a costume.

    I’ve only heard this (from multiple sources, but again only heard), I’ve never seen the actual rule/law/statute. So I’m not 100% sure of it.

  8. legion says:

    I still fondly remember a show called ‘Space – Above & Beyond’, about sci-fi Marine types. The pilot show turned me off initially because, to throw the various different personality types together, many of them were convicts, given the choice of enlisting or prison. That’s easy enough to deal with, but then every single one of them was commisisoned & put through flight school. WTF!?! It wasn’t until much later I actually sat down and watched a few episodes, though, and I grudgingly came to like it a lot. But boy, did it take a while to get over that initial suspension of disbelief…

  9. brainy435 says:

    I watched one of the James Bond flicks in Groton, CT surrounded by a bunch of subariners who work with the reactor plant. The plot involved, as I recall, replacing one of uranium rods in a russian subs nuclear reactor with a plutonium one to make a bomb. Bond swims into a critical reactor room to make the change.. and somehow doesn’t die instantly from the radiation. You’d have thought it was a comedy based on the crowd reaction.

    And that was just to Denise Richards cast as a nuclear scientist!

  10. And that was just to Denise Richards cast as a nuclear scientist!

    Yes Denise ‘One or Two talents’ Richards. It all depends on how you count them. 😉


  11. Michael says:

    You all think you have it bad, the level of absurdity in Hollywood when it comes to anything computer related is painful. I sometimes think they have a hat filled with little pieces of paper with tech jargon on them, then the script writers just grab a handful when they need the “techie nerd” character to explain how he’s going to break the NSA’s security in 10 seconds. Sometimes what they say isn’t simply wrong or stupid, it doesn’t even make sense.